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A Roundtable Discussion on Iran and Afghanistan

Aired September 28, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, Iran. More missile tests on top of those nuclear discoveries. The U.S. and its allies say they must now draw a line in the sand. What does that mean?

And agonizing decisions for Afghanistan. Can the allies reset the clock after eight years of war?

Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Tonight, two urgent challenges, as Tehran today test-fired more missiles -- long-range ones -- after testing a short-range system over the weekend. And that came right after Iran was compelled to reveal a second uranium enrichment site at a military base near the holy city of Qom.

And in Afghanistan, the U.S. president faces critical decisions, as the Taliban insurgency is fast gaining momentum and the U.S. commander on the ground says that only more troops can stop them.

So at this critical path, how much time does U.S. President Obama really have to make sure the right Afghan strategy is in place? And with new talks between the U.S. and Iran set for this week, can anything really be done to moderate Iran's nuclear behavior?

Joining me now to address these questions is the former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, David Albright. He's president of the Institute for Science and International Security. And Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and to the United Nations, he is now counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And here in the studio in New York, Gary Sick, former U.S. national security council officer under three presidents, former point man on Iran, and leading analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.

Gentlemen, thank you all very much for joining us.

I want to go straight to you on the technical dilemma and the issues facing the U.S. and the world on Iran's nuclear program. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate basically said that Iran had no longer planned for building a nuclear weapon. Just recently, Mr. Albright, this also was reconfirmed by intelligence sources. Do you believe that those updates reflected the existence of the Qom site?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: Well, the National Intelligence Estimate, first of all, said that -- judged or assessed -- and they used the term "moderate confidence," which is not very high confidence -- that the nuclear weapons program -- nuclear weaponization program, the part of the program aimed at building a warhead for a missile, had not restarted, it had been shut down in '03. The CIA or the intelligence community felt that judgment, had high confidence, and that -- and so there's a lot of uncertainty of whether this program has restarted, and...

AMANPOUR: But my question was, do you believe that this Qom site was part of that intelligence estimate? Did they know about it?

ALBRIGHT: Well, it's unclear. I think they -- they -- they knew about it, but the confidence in that conclusion didn't reach a high level until early this year or -- or -- or late last year. And so they knew about it, and it -- and it -- and I think they probably had other information that suggested that a nuclear weapons program continued, but they didn't assess or didn't believe that it was good enough to -- to change their -- their conclusion about the program stopping in '03.

AMANPOUR: And so, given this latest couple of intelligence officials telling Newsweek that they had told the White House there was no evidence of -- of a weapons system by Iran, do you believe that anything has changed in terms of Iran's capability?

ALBRIGHT: Well, Iran's nuclear weapons capabilities have steadily grown over the last several years. I mean, fundamentally, that capability rests in its ability to enrich uranium. And it's been growing that capability at Natanz, and it appears to, in this secret site that was revealed Friday by the United States, been trying to set up a parallel program that could have either operated in secret or could have been declared by Iran later and then perhaps used as part of a breakout scenario at a later time.

And so their nuclear weapon capabilities have been steadily growing. What remains uncertain is, what is -- what exactly do they know about making a warhead that can fit on a deliverable missile?

AMANPOUR: So they today and since Friday have been saying that it is only for its peaceful nuclear energy program, that it denies any kind of weaponization. Can I turn to you, Ambassador Khalilzad? Secretary of Defense Gates this weekend told CNN that they believe this was now new leverage and that they would look at the option of heavier sanctions in areas of, let's say, equipment, technology for their oil and gas industry, et cetera. Do you think that that is possible, to get the U.N. Security Council to do that?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: I think, first, the fact of this new enrichment facility that was discovered indicates Iran's determination with regard to this nuclear program. Maybe this was also aimed at having a hedge in case Natanz was attacked, that they would have yet another option for producing enriched uranium.

AMANPOUR: So do you think that's what the Qom facility is? Because Iran's chief of its atomic energy agency has said over the weekend that the reason it was at the Qom military base is precisely because it had been threatened with attack over its nuclear sites.

KHALILZAD: Right. I think that's certainly a possibility, that they're so committed to having the capability that they assume that Natanz at some point might be attacked, and therefore they -- they -- they build this additional backup facility.

But I believe, as far as your question on sanctions are concerned, I think this will help, but I still think, in order to have a sanctions regime that will really hurt, it will take a lot of work. I think China is going to be the most difficult to bring on board. If we bring Russia on board, then China might be willing to come along, but I think they will resist sanctions that will affect their trade with Iran substantially.

AMANPOUR: Can I turn to you, Gary Sick, here in the studio? And we've got this fancy map here, and I can point to Isfahan and Natanz and Qom and Tehran, where there are nuclear facilities. I've visited the Isfahan one. Natanz is obviously big and sprawling, and the -- the new Qom one.

Now, in regard to whether there are sanctions or -- or other sort of line-in-the-sand consequences that are put in, do you think, even if new sanctions are put on, that it will change Iran's behavior? Do you think that this is some kind of leverage, as the U.S. and clearly France and Britain think it is?

GARY SICK, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: I think the threat of sanctions is a very important lever. We're going into these talks on Thursday this week, and the United States is going in with a much stronger hand in these negotiations than I think they ever anticipated.

One, they've got Iran on its back foot, basically because they've been discovered and it was embarrassing for them. They'll pretend that nothing really has gone wrong, but I think they know better. And the United States has been capable, has been actually succeeding in getting a coalition together that might be able to put on more severe sanctions.

I think the actual imposition of the sanctions is not going to help at all, that basically Iran will ignore them. But they don't want more sanctions. And so I think we're at a moment when, in fact, the possibility of some movement on the nuclear front is actually not bad.

AMANPOUR: Do you mean that -- when you say some movement...

SICK: The negotiation.

AMANPOUR: ... that Iran would agree to negotiate?

SICK: Yes, to negotiate. And basically, you know, I was reading Secretary Clinton's comments over the weekend very closely. And although she said some tough words about holding Iran responsible, she also pointed out very clearly that the United States was willing to accept a degree of Iran's nuclear activities in return for very intense inspections. That's - - that's a step forward, and I think that's, in fact, what Iran is looking for.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me turn to you, Ambassador Khalilzad, then. Do you think then, if Secretary Clinton is indicating the willingness to accept a certain level of nuclear program in some way, you know, what level is the level? Do you think that one would have to learn to sort of live with a full nuclear program and have very, very strict inspection regime?

KHALILZAD: Well, I think the key issue is whether Iran would have the right accepted by the United States and others to enrich uranium. Even with inspections, once that has been accepted, then Iran will get very close to a nuclear weapons capability. I think Iran, if we are willing to go that far, then there is a possibility of a -- of a settlement.

There is alternative ways to assure Iran enriched uranium for its nuclear reactor program, such as an international bank, but I believe that for the U.S. to accept enrichment in Iran, a substantial enrichment program, not a -- a laboratory level, that will be tough.

I believe that Iran will not accept anything less than the right to enrich and to have the enrichment capability. I suspect that Iran also has some domestic concerns at this point because of the legitimacy crisis there by engaging to gain increased legitimacy at home, and I do worry about that, because, in my judgment, what's happening inside Iran is quite important, and I don't want us to be on the wrong side of history now to -- to be legitimizing their regime at a time that its domestic legitimacy is so undermined.

AMANPOUR: And yet, again, on this issue of sanctions, Mr. Mousavi, the main opposition leader, has said today that he opposes any new sanctions.

KHALILZAD: I think sanctions will help the regime. The more draconian the sanctions, the more it will be of help to the regime. I believe it's...

AMANPOUR: It would be of help to the regime?

KHALILZAD: Absolutely, politically, because it will provide an opportunity for the regime to blame the West for the problems that Iran is facing. And I think that we have to be very careful that we remember that the domestic situation in Iran is the most important issue right now.

Nuclear issue is important, clearly, but ultimately what happens as a result of what was unleashed during the election will be the most important. And we don't know quite where it's going to go, and we don't want to do anything to negatively impact the situation in terms of the people who fought for a fair and free election in Iran.

AMANPOUR: Let me just play what President Obama said about this revelation when he made that announcement on Friday.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on October 1st, they are going to have to come clean, and they are going to have to make a choice.


AMANPOUR: So, come clean and make a choice. David Albright, do you think Iran is aiming for what you in the technical area called a breakout capability?

ALBRIGHT: Yes, very much so. I think -- I think, unfortunately, this -- the recent exposure of this site shows just how dangerous it is to accept enrichment in Iran, that they -- that often these discoveries by intelligence communities are -- I hate to say it -- sometimes based on luck. You can't count on them.

And Iran has been making plans or been building this site for several years. And so I think the United States is -- has to face a very tough choice. If it accepts enrichment in Iran, it also has to accept that it may not be able to discover secret enrichment plants, even with robust IAEA inspections. And they'd be the first to tell you that -- that unless the country fully cooperates, that they cannot -- they cannot always find these places.

And so I think it's going to be very important for the United States to try to find a formula that keeps Iran from moving forward on enrichment, while at the same time satisfying their need for nuclear energy. And I think it can be done, but I don't think the United States should give on the enrichment question any time soon, perhaps much later, when there's trust that's been developed between the parties, but right now, I think it's just -- it's too dangerous, and this recent revelation shows dramatically the risks that we face if we accept enrichment in Iran.

AMANPOUR: Let me just also show a picture of President Ahmadinejad on the Friday as he was being informed that President Obama, Prime Minister Brown, and President Sarkozy were going to be revealing this or publicizing this Qom military or, rather, this Qom nuclear program. He basically said, "I hope they don't do that, because that will be a big mistake," the notion that it was done in secret.

Can I ask any of you, the notion that it was secret is -- is a bit strange, since the U.S. has said that it's known about it for years. Obviously, there's also a dispute between the United States, the IAEA, Iran over when notification has to happen. Is the main issue here the dispute over notification, Gary?

SICK: Well, you know, I think that's a small legal issue. This is about politics. And it's about very high politics. Iran, obviously, was diversifying its enrichment capability, I think, on the grounds that it might be attacked, and it wanted to have a backup facility. I mean, I agree with Zal Khalilzad absolutely on that.

AMANPOUR: But a backup what facility?

SICK: Basically, an enrichment capability that then -- for instance, if Iran got bombed and Natanz was wiped out or destroyed so badly that it couldn't operate, they would be able to back -- they would have a fallback position where they could, in fact, go ahead and go without notice to build a bomb. I think that's what it was about.

I don't think it was there to build a bomb secretly at the beginning. I think it was there to have a second -- a fallback position. And you've got to remember that, even if Mousavi had been elected in this, he would be taking essentially the same position that the government is today.

He is in favor of holding on to Iran's enrichment capability, its nuclear development, and he would have maybe had a nicer tone, perhaps, but it would have been the same argument.

AMANPOUR: But isn't this the -- the -- the crux of the matter? He did, actually, give an interview the day before the election saying that, yes, of course, he believed in Iran's nuclear program, but that he would have gone to great lengths to assure the international community that it was not being used for military purposes.

We will continue that when we come back. But right now, thank you, gentlemen, for -- for joining us on the Iran issue. We'll have a little bit more on that towards the end of the program.

But right now, we go to a break. As the war in Afghanistan is escalating, will the U.S. and NATO fail without more troops? Do they have the right strategy? That's next in our conversation.



GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. COMMANDER, AFGHANISTAN: I knew this was an important issue, but since I've been here the last two-and-a-half months, this civilian casualty issue is much more important than I even realized. It is literally how we lose the war or, in many ways, how we win it.


AMANPOUR: And that was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, speaking on the CBS news program "60 Minutes." So, can the U.S. and its allies win in Afghanistan? Joining me again, Gary Sick here in the studio and former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Washington.

I saw you nodding, Ambassador, when General McChrystal was talking about civilian casualties. And in all our reporting, we found that the single biggest drain of U.S. support are those civilian casualties. Do you agree, number one, that that is the win-or-lose moment for the war?

KHALILZAD: I think the challenge that we face in Afghanistan is the potential for mutual disillusionment between the United States and the Afghans. And a key ingredient of that potential disillusionment is that civilian casualties as a continuing factor for Afghan disillusionment.

So I agree with General McChrystal very much that, as we go forward, the need for adaptation to minimize civilian casualties, to focus on protecting the civilian population, is an important step.

AMANPOUR: And do you believe, also, that a nation-building kind of counterinsurgency, to protect the Afghan people, to build up their possibility, their infrastructure, their security, their future, is that the way to go?

KHALILZAD: I think that's a key, also, requirement for success against the Taliban insurgency, as well as the other groups that are tied to the Taliban. But that's not the only other requirement.

I think it's very important that we focus on the sanctuary for the insurgent groups in Pakistan. That sanctuary still continues, and we cannot succeed easily without dealing sharply with the issue of the sanctuary.

And third is, we need to build up the Afghan forces at a much faster pace than we have done so. Afghanistan is the same size, population-wise, as Iraq, bigger territory. But the number of Afghan security forces is less than 100,000 on the army and police, also, but Iraq has 700,000-plus security forces.

AMANPOUR: You know that there's a debate going on now in -- in Washington and elsewhere, maybe in some other European capitals with troops there, about whether one pulls back and just goes after the Taliban, Al Qaida, whether it be by drones or Predators or, you know, the 15,000 feet from above method, or whether one stays. What do you think would be the result if more troops weren't put in or if one just pulled back in terms of -- of how to attack?

KHALILZAD: Well, if one went to a pulling back and relying on drones, we would suffer a major defeat. And I agree with Secretary Gates on this, as he spoke yesterday. But at the same time, it's very important to recognize that, you know, the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, with their friends, Al Qaida, would be a huge political setback.

Imagine the Taliban marching back in Kabul with Al Qaida with them. It will be similar to what the Soviets suffered in Afghanistan.


KHALILZAD: Extremism and terror will gain throughout the region. So I -- I think that, while our goal, primary objective is to prevent the return of terror and extremism in Afghanistan, the way to do it is, I think, by focusing on sanctuary, by doing the kind of population protection that McChrystal has proposed, and building up Afghan forces so we can hand off the responsibility as quickly as possible to the Afghans.

AMANPOUR: Now, you are the diplomat who's possibly spent the most time with President Karzai. It seems, according to published reports, that the U.S. now believes that President Karzai will win. Is there a way to work with President Karzai? What mistakes have been made, in terms of the way U.S. administrations have dealt with him?

KHALILZAD: I think the mistake has been that we have indicated to him in recent months that we would like to get rid of him; at least that's what he believes. As a result, there is a crisis of confidence and relations between us.

I think, if he -- if he is going to be the winner ultimately -- and I don't know whether that will be the case -- but if he is, I think there is a need for a new page to be opened up. We have to make our assistance much more contingent on performance by the Afghan government, and there has to be a new framework of cooperation between the two countries.

I believe that, without an Afghan government that can make progress, winning the insurgency will be difficult. So that's another key requirement: a new understanding, a new framework of cooperation between Afghanistan and the United States and the international community.

AMANPOUR: Thank you, Ambassador.

We'll be back with both of you, including Mr. Sick, when we come back from a break.


AMANPOUR: We've got about three minutes left in the program, just enough for some final thoughts from our two guests.

Gary Sick, I want to ask you, these talks starting October 1st, the first really where the U.S. is going to be directly involved, what has to come out of those talks for them to be a success?

SICK: First of all, I think we can't expect this to all be settled in one meeting.


SICK: I think it should go on (inaudible) and I think we need to get the United States and Iran talking to each other directly. And particularly, the United States has to make Iran an offer they can't refuse.

AMANPOUR: Which is?

SICK: And that doesn't mean coercion and twisting their arm only. It means offering them something that is substantial enough that the Iranian people themselves will see that this is really important and they will begin to put pressure on their own government.

AMANPOUR: Such as, briefly?

SICK: Well, the sanctions are one area. We don't have to withdraw them unilaterally, but holding out the prospect of withdrawing them, with all of the goodies that go with that, and assistance on some of their own nuclear programs, for example.

AMANPOUR: In response for them to freeze their nuclear program?

SICK: They have to freeze their nuclear program, and they have to accept very intrusive inspections. That's -- it's a bargain. And it is not an impossible bargain.

AMANPOUR: Not an impossible bargain. How about in Afghanistan, Ambassador Khalilzad? Is it impossible to win this? How quickly does a new strategy have to be implemented?

KHALILZAD: I think it's not impossible to -- to win the Afghan people (inaudible) at this point. The Taliban have very little support in the Afghan population. I believe it's very important that we send immediately the equipment and forces that can assist exist forcing, our forces, coalition forces, in Afghanistan so their security can be enhanced to the maximum extent possible.

The president is right to take his time about the overall strategy. I think he has to be sure of what he wants, but you have to also recognize that he doesn't want to send the message that he's wavering on this issue, because that would encourage the Taliban and the other enemies of the United States in that region.

But I believe that a combination of a population protection strategy, build up of Afghan forces, a new framework with the Afghan government, but sharply also focusing on the sanctuary, holding Pakistan's feet to the fire on the issue of the Taliban sanctuaries in -- in Afghanistan, can lead us to a improved situation. And that, in turn, will make it possible to sustain the strategy in Afghanistan.

The people are losing confidence because they believe that our current strategy is not succeeding...

AMANPOUR: All right.

KHALILZAD: ... and that is not good for Afghanistan or for the United States.

AMANPOUR: Thank you both very much, Ambassador Khalilzad, Gary Sick. There's a note of optimism in what you've both said. That's a good way to go out. So thank you.

And this conversation will continue online on the program's Facebook page. And also, go to our Web site,, where you can find out much more about the war in Afghanistan and the nuclear confrontation with Iran. Please join us there.

And that is it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with an exclusive look at Somalia, a country where Al Qaida is rapidly gaining strength. For all of us here right now, goodbye from New York.